(Update 1: Adds details, updates, re-writes throughout)
By Lorena Cantó
Havana, Jul 11 (EFE).- Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest against the government in an unprecedented day that resulted in clashes and many arrests after President Miguel Díaz-Canel ordered his supporters to confront the demonstrators.
The protests, the largest in Cuba since August 1994, came as the country battles a serious economic and health crisis, with the pandemic out of control and a severe shortage of food, medicine and other essentials, in addition to long power outages.
Images of hundreds of people marching amid cries of “Down with the dictatorship” and “Homeland and life” through the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, in western Artemisa, lit a fuse on social media and began calls for protests throughout the country.
Thousands marched across Cuba, peacefully in most cases, demanding “freedom” and shouting slogans against the government and Díaz-Canel.
Protests broke out in Palma Soriano (Santiago de Cuba), Alquízar, Güira de Melena, Havana, and the provincial capitals of Camagüey, Matanzas, Ciego de Ávila and Santiago de Cuba, among many other places.
In the capital they took place in several spots, including outside the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television where a sit-in escalated into verbal confrontations with government supporters and the violent detention of young people, according to an Efe team at the scene.
One of the largest protests took place in front of the Havana Capitol, where some 2,000 people gathered before heading to Paseo del Prado avenue leading to the Malecon, shouting “Dictators” and “Down with communism.”
Military trucks blocked access to the Malecón and protesters dispersed, running through the streets trying to reach the emblematic promenade.
Throughout the afternoon, tensions heightened and protesters were dragged into police cars and trucks and taken from the scene.
Around 3 pm local time (07:00 pm GMT) mobile internet service was cut off and calls began to show instability – a digital blackout that lasted hours.
After appearing in San Antonio de los Baños, Díaz-Canel took to state television to urge his supporters to take to the streets.
“The order for combat has been given – revolutionaries to the streets,” said the president, who described the demonstrations as “provocations of the counter-revolution.”
Díaz-Canel’s words caused an uproar on social media where Cubans condemned the head of state for urging confrontations, instead peace and dialog.
Thereafter, citizen brigades arrived at protests sites aboard state buses – shouting slogans such as “I am Fidel” and “Canel, my friend, the people are with you” – in addition to a strong police presence and dozens of plainclothes officers.
It was then that clashes with anti-government protesters escalated.
The events come after the “SOS Cuba” campaign, launched by civil society due to the crisis, the shortage of medicines and the critical situation due to the pandemic in the province of Matanzas.
A night curfew applies to most of the island due to the pandemic. EFE